A deeper darkness
Commercial air travel has existed for nearly a century now. During that time, all sorts of things have happened on flights, from people being sucked out of aircraft to deadly altercations between passengers. One doubts though that there is any precedent to the events on Air India flights late last year. In the first instance, a man in his thirties becomes so inebriated that he actually urinated on an elderly woman co-passenger; in the second incident, another drunken man urinated on the blanket and the empty seat of a woman passenger who had gone to the toilet. Both men were Indian, as were both their victims; both men, it seems, were from what one likes to call ‘the educated middle-class’; neither apparently was a first-time flyer or a hapless victim of first-time drinking; both the cases were handled very badly by the cabin crew and the flight captains who clearly panicked and utterly failed in their duty of taking care of vulnerable passengers who had suffered these horrors or, indeed, making sure that the guilty men were arrested as soon as the flights landed; after the acts, there were various clumsy attempts at cover-ups and fudging information about the incidents.
Weird questions get thrown up by the twin outrages. Would the cabin crew have stopped giving them drinks earlier had these men been on non-Indian airlines? Would the men have themselves behaved differently on those airlines? Perhaps the man targeting the empty seat did not know who its occupant was but was it actually a coincidence that both victims were female? Is there some sort of mental epidemic that we are only just beginning to decipher, an illness that obliterates behavioural boundaries, a condition brought on by the combination of a pressurised cabin and a certain amount of alcohol, one that only affects Indian males of a certain age and class?
As we go into this new year, we can take stock of other instances of different scale of the destruction of civil boundaries and norms that one could previously take for granted. In Brazil, we have an assault on a newly-elected government by people who voted against the elected candidates, a copycat attack that replicates the January 6, 2021 assault by Trumpists on the US Capitol. In the United States of America, a sixyear-old child manages to get hold of a hand-gun, bring it to school, and deliberately use it on his teacher, nearly killing her; this takes the horrifying business of school shootings to another unprecedented level. In the US Congress, the Republican Party begins to devour itself publicly in the fight over which one of its members should become Speaker; for many observers, a direct line to this state of affairs can be drawn from the moment Mitch McConnell nakedly misused his powers as Senate Majority leader, first to stall the due appointment of a Supreme Court judge nominated by a Democrat president and, then, to turn the very principles he cited on their head and ram through the appointment of one appointed by a Republican president nearing the end of his term. Seeing this kind of cynical, anti-democratic abuse of a legislative majority reminds us of similar political vandalism in today’s India and in other democracies that are being hollowed out by those in power.
What, you may ask, do a drunken man urinating on a fellow air passenger and a political party ruthlessly bribing and blackmailing elected legislators into defecting from their party have in common? Perhaps we should reframe the question and ask: is there a continuum between the urinating drunkard and a political party relieving itself on a national Constitution? Or, is there a connection between a white American police officer in military gear opening fire on an unarmed black man or woman and an Iranian Revolutionary Guard opening fire into a crowd of protesting college girls? Is there some sort of joining tissue between a principle-free Benjamin Netanyahu forming a government with politicians calling for the genocide of Arabs and our own leaders encouraging followers who openly call for the genocide of minorities in India?
What one can perhaps say is that all over the world, there is a rapid whittling down of older notions of ethics and morality, of the list of things that cannot and should not be done, no matter what the rewards. Completely interwoven with this degraded sense of right and wrong is the growing awareness that ‘perhaps I can get away with this, let’s just try and see’. Put another way, perhaps people instinctively sense that this lowered threshold of judging right and wrong, of truth and untruth, is something they share with an increasing number of others. Thus, a driver dragging the dying body of democracy under the car of the administration may press the accelerator rather than the brake in the calculation that sooner or later the body will be completely dead and be thrown off by the wheels. ‘I may be doing something evil but I have lots of company. To how many dying democracies can the world pay attention? Look left, there’s Erdogan and Netanyahu, look right, there’s Orbán and Khameini, look over there, Trump and Bolsonaro are still kicking, and, most crucially, who will say anything to us when they are so busy dealing with Putin and Xi?’
To pull back from the macro to the micro of the personal, at the beginning of this tricky, scary new year, we know that each and every one of us is capable, to some degree, of committing small or big outrages, of choosing to avoid difficult truths and take some easier, far more sordid, short-cuts to reach our ends. This also makes us more likely to look away when some co-passenger a couple of seats away starts doing something patently horrendous, begins assaulting or hurting someone. Speaking up and intervening to stop the small outrages we witness daily won’t change the world overnight, but avoiding getting involved and doing nothing will certainly make the current darkness last a lot longer.